The most influential biblical interpreter in the world today is not a pastor, a scripture scholar, or a bishop. He’s a Canadian clinical psychologist with no formal training in biblical studies and no church membership.
Jordan B. Peterson’s bestselling book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is biblically saturated. It draws from his immensely popular YouTube series, “The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories.” Committed atheists rave online about the wisdom Peterson has shown them in the Bible, and countless people report that their lives have been changed for the better by his work.
Peterson holds that scripture is an unimaginably ancient and profound source of wisdom refined through the ages from the collective human imagination. Through time, these ancient stories have been shorn of all superfluity so that each phrase is saturated with meaning. Any story retold for thousands of years captures something enduring about the human condition.
In his interpretations of the biblical stories, Peterson shows the enduring power of a classic way of approaching the text.
From at least the time of Origen of Alexandria, readers have distinguished various senses of scripture. The literal sense of scripture is what the human author intended to communicate, such as history, metaphor, poetry, or parable. The allegorical sense is how the passage is related to Christ, the eternal Word and the son of Mary. The moral sense is how the passage can help guide human behavior. And finally, the anagogical sense is how the passage relates to the ultimate human destiny of heaven or hell.
For the most part, Peterson does not attempt to provide the literal meaning of the text. He makes no claim to expertise in the original languages, cultures, or contexts of scripture but focuses rather on the allegorical, anagogical, and especially moral meanings of the text.
As Augustine recommends in De Doctrina Christiana, Peterson draws on all forms of secular learning to inform his reading of the Bible. He marshals evolutionary biology, pagan mythology, Taoism, Milton, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Dostoevsky, and especially Carl Jung to offer a multidimensional understanding of the text. Peterson embodies the view of Aquinas, who argued that scripture has an inexhaustible depth of meaning.
Fresh presentations of Biblical stories
Perhaps the most important stories shaping Peterson’s thought are those that are most controversial on the literal level: the first chapters of Genesis.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth in a chaotic and formless darkness. God says, “Let there be light.” On Peterson’s view, this truthful speech brings order out of the dark, formless chaos. Because they are made in the image of God, man and woman can also create order from chaos by the free choice of speaking and living the truth.
According to Peterson, the story of Adam and Eve contains enduring wisdom about the human condition. Why is the serpent in the garden? Chaos and order are omnipresent in human experience. Human life is unsustainable in pure chaos, but it is also stifled in pure order. The serpent represents the chaos in the otherwise orderly garden.
Even if all the snakes could be banished from the garden, the snake of conflict between humans remains a possibility. And even if inter-human conflict could be eradicated, the snake within each person remains. Peterson’s view of the human person is shaped by Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s insight that “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart.”
For this reason, Peterson notes, “A serpent, metaphorically speaking, will inevitably appear.” The lesson he draws is that it is better to make one’s children strong and competent than to attempt in vain to protect them from all snakes. To protect loved ones from all dangers is to make them like infants, depriving them of what could make them strong.
The serpent tempts the original parents to eat of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, an attempt to have complete understanding. As Peterson says in his first book, Maps of Meaning, “The presumption of absolute knowledge, which is the cardinal sin of the rational spirit, is therefore prima facie equivalent to rejection of the hero—to rejection of Christ, of the Word of God, of the (divine) process that mediates between order and chaos.”
Peterson cites Lynne A. Isbell’s The Fruit, the Tree, and the Serpent: Why We See So Well in which she argues that both the snake and the fruit are associated in our evolutionary past with increased vision and increased self-consciousness.
Once Adam and Eve eat the fruit, “the eyes of both [are] opened,” and they become self-conscious. They realize that they are naked, unprotected, and vulnerable. They realize how they can be hurt, how they will die, and how anyone like them is also vulnerable to death and suffering.
With awareness of human vulnerability, the human choice of malevolence becomes possible. Mere animals also die, but they lack the self-consciousness to project their own mortality into the future. Mere animals kill, but the malevolence of Cain against Abel is a possibility only for humankind.
The self-consciousness of the human person is linked to the bigger brains of the human species. Bigger brains and relatively small female hips lead to the birth of helpless human children. Babies require intensive care if they are to survive.
A birth mother always has a physical connection to her child and almost always has an intense bond to her baby. So the child’s vulnerability leads also to maternal vulnerability that facilitates male dominance.
Adam’s punishment of toil for bread is also linked to self-consciousness. He realizes that however much he has today, tomorrow will come. Given his self-consciousness projected into the future, Adam now has concern for tomorrow. So he must work.
The fall prompts Adam and Eve to sacrifice, to delay gratification for a higher good. Peterson notes, “The successful among us delay gratification. The successful among us bargain with the future.” To sacrifice is to give up something good now for the sake of something better in the future.
According to Peterson, Christ is the archetypal perfect man who gives up his own life (an ultimate sacrifice) for the sake of the greatest good for all. Christ rejects expediency, rejects the lie, and rejects a comfortable but meaningless existence. Peterson holds that “Christ is always he who is willing to confront evil—consciously, fully, and voluntarily—in the form that dwelt simultaneously within Him and in the world.”
Mary is the archetypal mother who sacrifices her own beloved Son for the greatest good.
Is it right to bring a baby into this terrible world? Every woman asks herself that question. Some say no, and they have their reasons. Mary answers yes, voluntarily, knowing full well what’s to come—as do all mothers, if they allow themselves to see. It’s an act of supreme courage, when undertaken voluntarily.
In this too, Peterson creatively re-presents a classic motif in biblical interpretation, Christ as the new Adam and Mary as the New Eve who offer a sacrifice pleasing to God the Father.
Truthful speech brings order in the world. Lies, evasions of responsibility, and unwillingness to sacrifice make an internal and sometimes an external hell of the world. “Failure to make the proper sacrifices, failure to reveal yourself, failure to live and tell the truth—all that weakens you.”
The liar brings about an inner schizophrenia and self-weakening. “If you pay attention to what you do and say, you can learn to feel a state of internal division and weakness when you are misbehaving and misspeaking. It’s an embodied sensation, not a thought.” The Eternal Word is the truthful speech of God in opposition to all lies.
Echoing the natural law tradition, Peterson recognizes an innate human understanding of right and wrong prior to theory, “Don’t waste time questioning how you know that what you are doing is wrong, if you are certain that it is. … You can know something is wrong or right without knowing why.” As a result of his intensive study of the horrors and cruelty of Nazi concentration camps and Soviet gulags, Peterson also strongly affirms the existence of intrinsically evil acts, acts that ought never to be done.
Indeed, lies gave birth to the stunning atrocities of the twentieth century and continue to ruin lives today.
If your life is not what it could be, try telling the truth. If you cling desperately to an ideology, or wallow in nihilism, try telling the truth. If you feel weak and rejected, and desperate, and confused, try telling the truth. In Paradise, everyone speaks the truth. That is what makes it a Paradise. Tell the truth. Or, at least, don’t lie.
To live in the truth is to live in accordance with the Eternal Logos who is the truth itself.
An incomplete understanding of Christian belief
Peterson does not claim to be an orthodox Christian, perhaps in part because of an incomplete understanding of Christian belief. For example, he writes,
First, [Christian belief caused the] devaluation of the significance of earthly life, as only the hereafter mattered. This also meant that it had become acceptable to overlook and shirk responsibility for the suffering that existed in the here-and-now.
There are some forms of Christianity that do shirk responsibility for alleviating suffering. In Wandering in Darkness, Eleonore Stump described the “stern-minded attitude” in which the only good that matters is eternal salvation.
However, even if salvation were the only intrinsic good, Christians hold that how we treat those who suffer matters for our eternal salvation. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus indicates that we have a duty to alleviate the suffering that exists in the here-and-now, or else we will not be saved, “Whatsoever you do for the least of these, you did for me” (Matt 25:40).
These words of Jesus have inspired Christians to found hospitals, orphanages, and schools to meet the physical and the spiritual needs of the vulnerable. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and countless other saints, dedicated themselves in extraordinary ways to alleviating suffering in the poorest of the poor. Buddhism might be accused of indifference to human suffering, but mainstream Christianity cannot.
According to Peterson, another consequence of Christian belief is “passive acceptance of the status quo, because salvation could not be earned in any case through effort in this life . . .” He is certainly right that Christianity teaches that supernatural life cannot be earned. Just as no one can give himself physical life, so too no one can work his way into being an adopted child of God.
But the view that salvation is a divine gift rather than a human accomplishment does not justify the idea that Christians are called to passive acceptance of the status quo, whatever it may be. Francis of Assisi, Joan of Arc, Catherine of Siena, Francis Xavier, John Paul II, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn did not passively embrace the political, social, or religious status quo. These figures were tireless in their activity to change the world here and now for the better.
A third consequence of Christian belief described by Peterson is, “the right of the believer to reject any real moral burden (outside of the stated belief in salvation through Christ), because the Son of God has already done all the important work.”
Christians believe that the work of Jesus is utterly irreplaceable, but this truth does not denigrate the moral burden of other human beings. In his strong recognition of the evils of Auschwitz and the gulags, Jordan accepts the classic Christian belief that there are some actions that human beings ought never to do. These beliefs often constitute a real moral burden for those who live them out.
Thomas More lost his head rather than commit perjury. William Wilberforce felt in his bones the moral burden of ending slavery. It is difficult to exceed the ethical imperative felt by a Katherine Drexel or a Maximilian Kolbe.
Finally, Peterson’s reading of scripture could find a greater completeness in a more nuanced approach to medieval intellectual history. In his first book, Maps of Meaning, Peterson wrote, “For the medieval mind, the body, the sensory, the physical world—‘matter,’ in general—was valued as immoral and as corrupt, as ruled by demonic, unknown forces.” While it is true that some medieval thinkers, such as the Manicheans and the Cathars, held that the body was evil, the mainstream Catholic tradition strongly rejected these dualistic conceptions.
Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas dedicated immense energy to combating a dualistic vision of reality that viewed matter as arising from dark powers. Indeed, an affirmation of the goodness of matter is found in Genesis itself with its repeated affirmations, “God saw that it was good.” If all created things are made through the Word, then, as Gerard Manley Hopkins said, the “World is charged with the grandeur of God.”
In his biblical interpretation, Jordan Peterson re-presents in powerful and fresh ways the stories that have animated Western culture. Christians have much to learn from him, even as his own engagement with the Bible could be enriched by the Christian tradition.
Christopher Kaczor is Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University and the author of The Seven Big Myths about the Catholic Church, among other books. This article has been republished with permission from Public Discourse.